Creating a story to drive home data

When an organization that serves as a catalyst for economic development in Southeast Michigan needed to make the case for a new round of funding, Applied Storytelling joined the effort to weave compelling data and an evocative narrative together.


In 2008, the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan (CFSM) convened a consortium of ten foundations to create economic development using a bold model. The New Economy Initiative (NEI), as they called it, would stimulate the economy of Detroit and Southeast Michigan from the grassroots up.


By 2016, the organization could point to more than 1,600 new start-ups and hundreds of “been-ups” that had received support; and the collaboration of hundreds of community organizations that it had helped to catalyze into a fast-growing “economic ecosystem”.


The emerging picture was promising but fragmented: The NEI needed to prove significant economic growth in financial terms. Additionally, NEI leadership remained concerned that the “economic ecosystem” it had catalyzed wasn’t yet self-sustaining. To give people a clear picture of the NEI’s success and promise through a new round of funding, they commissioned analysts to parse the data for economic indicators and a creative team to build a narrative around them.


The resulting narrative proved “The NEI Way” as a disruptive force in the economic development landscape, on several levels: reimagining how resources are networked, focusing on inclusion and exploring the impact of place. The narrative was supported by a report, which validated the impact of the NEI, highlighting jobs created (17,490) and new companies born (1,610) since the NEI’s inception.


The NEI secured the $96 million funding it sought. Since then, the new narrative and messaging have helped the NEI to stimulate even greater engagement in the ecosystem—and to share its approach to economic development audiences across the nation.


“A good story brings together substance, structure and style. Don’t discount the latter. Well-turned sentences and phrases can become catchwords and catalysts for more systematic messaging to come.”

Eric La Brecque